Not everyone attending Stanford comes from a background of wealth and privilege, obviously, but few people arrive there after circumstances like my spouse’s.
Violent trauma; abandonment; food insecurity. For college, she’d turned down Harvard despite their generous offer of significant financial aid: she didn’t have any money to pay for college. Instead, she went to a school that offered a full ride plus a stipend.
Even that wasn’t enough: her father took out credit cards in her name and used them to pay his bills. After collection notices began to arrive at her dormitory mail room, she … well, first she slumped to the floor and cried. Wouldn’t you? But then she used the money from her job at the college bookstore to pay them off.
After college, she won a Fulbright. The Fulbright award comes with a stipend: many young people use this money to travel, to see something of the world while they’re overseas. My spouse used the stipend to pay her bills from dental surgery.
By the time she and I met, she’d made her way to Stanford; her mother, father, and younger sibling were all unhoused.
Her father was in Albany. Luckily, a friend took him in, a man named Paul who had a little pension from working at the post office. Paul’s house was small, the foundation was sinking, and everything rattled with the passing trains, but there were four walls and heat. I’ve never not had four walls and heat. I like to think that I have a good imagination, but I can’t fathom being unhoused in Albany.
The post office pension was something, but Paul decided that he ought to grow marijuana. That would nicely supplement his income. He also decided, despite living on a street where two-thirds of the houses were vacant and boarded up, that he ought to tell his neighbors about this plan to grow marijuana in the attic. Then they’d know to buy from him.
The first time people broke in to steal the marijuana, my spouse’s father got pistol whipped in the face. For weeks afterward, his face ached. After the second time, he found his bedraggled tomato plants abandoned in the middle of the street. This I can imagine: somebody waiting in the car, engine idling, ready to drive away, looking up to say “You idiots, that’s not marijuana!”
Paul decided to get a guard dog. He found somebody with a pitbull too unruly to handle – the dog had been kicked out of two houses already, for howling, breaking things, biting people. This dog would go berserk around bright lights, and was even worse when he heard the sound of motorcycles. Two years old, but he walked and ran with a limp; the dog must’ve broken a leg when he was a puppy.
Having a guard dog helped. When some guys were working their way down the street, stripping copper pipes out of all the vacant houses, the dog started barking and got the guys arrested. My spouse’s father didn’t get pistol-whipped again.
He talked to my spouse on the phone. “Paul got a dog,” he said.
My spouse knew how much her father loved animals. “Is this really your dog?” she asked.
“No,” her father said, “it’s Paul’s dog.” But also, my spouse could hear a gentle panting; the dog’s head was in her father’s lap.
The next year, toward the end of November, Paul was having sex and died. Very suddenly. Which must have been traumatizing for Paul’s lady friend?
After Paul passed, the dog was very clearly my spouse’s father’s dog.
Unfortunately, the mortgage was in Paul’s name. As were the utilities. Paul’s post office pension had been paying the bills. Which meant that my spouse’s father and the dog were squatting in the vacant house without electricity or heat. December tends to be cold in Albany.
So my spouse and I borrowed a car – we’d spent a few years walking and biking everywhere – and drove out to get her father and the dog. We moved them in with us, thinking that they’d be with us briefly, then found out that you can’t keep a pitbull in Section 8 housing. So then we spent a few months searching for a second apartment that we could afford.
My spouse’s father didn’t have any money. He’d lost his last job – parking cars in a garage – when he had a stroke during working hours. His boss assumed that he’d been drinking and so he was thrown in jail instead of taken to the hospital. He had unmanaged diabetes and cardiovascular troubles and the stroke made things worse, but it took several years before he was approved for disability.
But the dog kept him alive. Got him outside a few times a day – the dog would pull like a little tugboat to get my spouse’s father up the stairs again to their apartment – and would rouse him when my spouse’s father briefly stopped breathing in his sleep. (Which happened often, and always sounded deeply unsettling during the time that he lived with my spouse and me.) The dog seemed to like trying to help. Although, honestly, the dog was pretty traumatized too: he’d howl when he was left alone, and the gunshot sounds of the 4th of July would make him thrash and snap his jaws.
The dog got his full name a few years later, when my spouse showed up at her father’s apartment to tell him she was pregnant.
“Max,” her father said, turning toward the dog with tears brimming in his eyes, “you’re gonna be an uncle. Uncle Max.”
“Nuh uh,” my spouse said, “we are not calling the dog Uncle Max.”
My spouse’s father died when our child was one. The dog came to live with us: his fifth family, then. We called him Uncle Max.
The name helped. He was a sixty-pound, scary-looking pitbull. But there’s something disarming about a dog called “uncle.”
The first week he lived with us, I thought he’d bitten off my child’s fingers. I was fixing lunch and had lost track of what my child was doing. I didn’t realize that she might be in the room with the scary dog.
Suddenly, I heard my child wail. I rushed toward the sound, and my child came staggering toward me, clutching her arm against her belly as though her hand might be bleeding or even missing, but when she finally let me see, there was the slightest little dimple on the soft skin of the back of her hand. She tried to explain what had happened to me in that vaguely incomprehensible way that an 18-month-old explains things:
“I, I …” she said, or perhaps “Eye, eye …” and then, “…put finger Max-y eye.”
So she’d been putting her fingers into the dog’s eyeball and then wailed, chagrined, when he had rather gently told her “No.”
Uncle Max loved running. I rather loathed going running with him, but we went together three times each week. He was fast, despite his limp, and he liked to start at a sprint, bolting from the house with me stumbling along behind him, struggling to hang on to his leash. Then, after about three miles he’d tire and plod along the rest of the way home.
He especially loved bounding through the local university campus, drawing smiles from students as his tongue flopped rakishly through the air: he was as gorgeous and charismatic as an underwear model. When people were watching, he liked to hop up and prance along little stone walls next to the sidewalk. He’d wag his tail and flirt whenever people asked to pet him.
But Uncle Max had memories. He held a lifelong vendetta. He’d seen an ambulance take my spouse’s father away, and then my spouse’s father never came back: just a long lock of faded russet hair that my spouse brought for Uncle Max to sniff.
I was walking Uncle Max one day when an ambulance came by us, forty miles per hour and flashing lights on a quiet street. Uncle Max lunged, trying to bite the ambulance, and nearly pulled me off my feet.
To be perfectly honest, my eyes filled up with tears when I typed this. Uncle Max seemed mostly happy. But that was one goal he never achieved: he never got his revenge, never killed an ambulance.
That’s one type of heroism. Easy to spot. Cinematic. A dog hurling himself into danger to slay the mechanical beast that took his person.
Uncle Max also had the other kind. The quiet heroism. Generally I don’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing, but I love this passage about heroism from The Pale King:
“By which,” [our accounting instructor] said, “I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood. You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. An audience.”
He made a gesture I can’t describe: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”
He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking. “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk.”
This is a sad passage: the author wants to convey the heroism of quietly getting your work done; his own ability to do so had faltered. David Foster Wallace could no longer bear to sit at his desk.
But Uncle Max had children to look after. I think that Uncle Max was in a lot of pain for his last few years. He lived until he was almost fourteen, but by the time he was eight, he stopped being able to run – he still wanted to run, but if we let him, he’d spend the next few days licking his aching, arthritic joints – and as the years went on, he needed to take progressively shorter and shorter walks. Near the end of his life, he was so stiff in the mornings that watching him walk was like a stop-motion film of a taxidermied dead animal.
But each day, after his medication kicked in, he was so happy to see his kids, to play with them or simply sit and be their pillow. He hurt, a lot, but he probably would have kept on going if we’d asked him.
At times, of course, he was infuriating. He felt aggrieved one evening when we rushed off to a dinner party without taking him; he protested by nosing his way into our baking supplies, dragging a package of chocolate chips off a shelf, and devouring them. His heart was racing and his breath was shallow as I drove him to the all-night vet; it took a while to clean all his chocolate-scented vomit.
He’d shriek with a high-pitched, plangent whine whenever he felt like he wasn’t near enough to help; other people in town can walk their dogs to playgrounds and leave them tied just outside the fence, but Uncle Max had lost so many families that he couldn’t believe we’d survive without him. His shrieks sounded like he was in agony; spiritually, perhaps he was.
And he was very loud. Our whole neighborhood knew when he was demanding to go outside or in. Once when we happened to be out of the house for a while on the 4th of July, we returned home to find the kid next door shaking her head ruefully and saying, “I think there’s something wrong with your dog.” He never could handle fireworks.
But he loved his children.
Uncle Max did well. I believe he lived his life with heroism.
I’m proud of that dog.
And I’m proud of my spouse. She took care of her father until the end and then some. For seven years after her father died, my spouse made sure that his dog was safe & warm, well-fed & loved.
Most paths that start like theirs do not lead to here.